Huffpost WorldPost
Carlo Strenger Headshot

Obama's Victory and the American Social Contract: Lessons for Israel

Posted: Updated:

What can Israel, like the U.S., a multi-ethnic immigration country, learn from the American Social Contract, reasserted by Obama's victory?

I can't help beginning with a heartfelt Mazal Tov to the U.S. This election pitched two competing visions of American society, and I believe that the better conception won. Obama's reelection is remarkable: The CNN panel of experts pointed out that never has a president be reelected with such a weak economy, and there was consensus that America's minorities decided these U.S. elections.

Of course not all is idyllic in the U.S. Race was still a (mostly unspoken) factor in the 2012 elections: Romney got the majority of the white vote, and the Tea Party movement was, among others, fueled by the feeling of many white Americans that they are losing their country.

But Barack Hussein Obama, the Hawaii-born son of a Kenyan father of Muslim descent and a white mother, once again won both the popular and the electoral votes carried by the minority vote: black, Latino and, one shouldn't forget, Jewish. This, once again, proves the tremendous resilience of the U.S.'s social contract, which commits all citizens to respect differences, and to create a culture of tolerance.

This victory of American pluralism raises interesting questions for Israel because of one crucial similarity: both countries are immigration societies that have tragic conflicts with some of its minorities. What can Israel learn from the success of the American social contract?

The U.S. needed a long historical process to integrate its minorities. It took the Civil War to abolish slavery, and full equality of African Americans had to await the 1960s. And let us not forget that John F. Kennedy's election was remarkable, because it was far from trivial that a Catholic could be president of a country founded by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Israel is much younger, and, as former Likud Minister Moshe Arens keeps reiterating, it has so far failed to integrate its Arab citizens. This failure must be seen in a wider context: Israel is surrounded by Arab states whose populations are far from friendly with Israel, even in Jordan and Egypt with whom we have peace treaties. Israeli Arabs identify as Palestinians, and Israel has been locked into a bitter conflict with their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, and feels threatened by the demand that Palestinian refugees return to the home of their families inside Israel.

The most blatant symptom of Israel's fears of Arabs is Lieberman's anti-Arab platform and behavior. Moshe Arens has pointed out that Lieberman never misses an occasion to offend Arabs, and that his slogan is that the fewer Arabs in Israel the better.

Lieberman's delegitimizing Israeli Arabs is, among others, meant to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of who are not Jews according to Halakha. By redefining Israeliness as unquestioned loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state he tries to create the option for them to be genuine Israelis.

But has Israel not fully integrated immigrants from the former Soviet Union? It hasn't, as could be seen on the pages of Haaretz, Israel's leading liberal newspaper, in recent weeks. Haaretz Columnist Amir Oren compared the relation between Netanyahu and Lieberman to that of Putin and Medvedev. Haaretz gave Lieberman the opportunity to reply, and he wrote that that Oren was racist, and Haaretz commentator Dmitry Shumsky, himself of Russian origin retorted that it was by no means racist to call Russians racists, because they do not believe in liberal values.

The problem doesn't stop with Russians: Arie Deri fully intends to make the Mizrahim's experience of discrimination the focus of the upcoming election. This led Dan Laor to criticize Shas for accentuating its North African origin and releasing the ethnic bogeyman from the bottle.

But this bottle has turned into a Molotov Cocktail on the verge of explosion. The open secret of Israeli politics is that the political agendas of some major parties thinly mask the struggle of ethnic and cultural groups for a place of honor in Israel.

Mizrachim (Jews originating from Arab countries) and Russians are by no means alone in waging Israel's culture war: Second and third Generation Tsabarim (those born in Israel), mostly of Eastern European extraction, feel that the county that is rightfully theirs has been taken away from them by people like Lieberman. They want it back, not realizing that they are no longer a majority.

The Ultraorthodox claim that they are the only real Jews here, and many National-religious want to turn Israel into a theocratic revival of David Kingdom. Both of them want to win the war on Israel by virtue of high birthrates.

The politically correct solution to this ethnic and cultural fragmentation is to say that Israel must be a multicultural society in which all can feel at home. But a multicultural society needs a unifying common denominator that Israel doesn't have: a US-style social contract of respecting differences.

Instead we have a culture of mutual hatred constantly fuelled by the right wing. They want Israelis to believe that if there were no Arabs, and if Israel's leftists were to evaporate, all would be fine. They create the fantasy that Israel's Jews are united. But this is an illusion: once you scratch the surface, nothing connects between Lieberman and Shas.

The psychological truth of Israeli society is that all ethnic and cultural groups are terrified that if one wins, the other will have no place in Israel. We keep projecting these fears of annihilation on external dangers like Iran that are real, but don't threaten Israel's survival. The truth is that all Israelis are terrified that we have not succeeded in creating a society that can contain ethnic, cultural and religious differences, and that the country is falling apart.

What can we learn from US history, then? From the Ku-Klux-Klan to current white supremacists many Americans refused to accept that the US is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multicultural society. It took the bravery of many to stem the tide of racism and xenophobia. Some of them like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King paid with their lives for their principled stance.

Israel is a young country that has evolved under threat to its existence. It is not surprising that it has not sorted out its deep social and political problems, and it is remarkable that, at least within the Green Line, it is a flourishing liberal democracy. But we have no choice but to move towards a social contract of mutual respect and equal rights for all, and we should take America's reelection of President Barack Hussein Obama as an inspiration.

The way there is difficult and, unfortunately, sometimes violent: Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated because he realized that Israel could not continue treating Palestinians as second-rate human beings. We can only hope that Israelis will soon come to understand that as long as one group is treated as second-rate, all Israelis will continue to feel threatened in their honor and integrity.